Darkest Hour

Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ronald Pickup, Ben Mendelsohn

Director: Joe Wright

Writer: Anthony McCarten


It’s interesting that Darkest Hour ended up coming out the same year as Dunkirk. Both films take place at exactly the same time and are more or less centred on the exact same event, the defeat and evacuation of the British army in Nazi-occupied France, but both from very different perspectives. Dunkirk takes us right into the action in the most astoundingly visceral way and is so focused on the emotions of the soldiers in that moment that it says practically nothing about the larger historical context. Darkest Hour reveals some of that context, detailing the crisis in leadership that emerged in the wake of what looked like imminent defeat and the dire mood that dominated Parliament. Unlike Nolan’s quasi-silent epic, this story is told not in images but in dialogue as it directly engages with the larger meaning of the events that unfolded which in Dunkirk had been simply implied. The way that these two films inform each other is fascinating and, the more I think about the sensational, intense experience of watching Dunkirk, the less impressive I find Darkest Hour to be.

It is 1940 and Great Britain is at war with Germany. The disgraced Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) has resigned as Prime Minister for his failure to contend with Hitler’s ambition and a new Tory leader must be found who will have the support of both the people and the opposition party. Chamberlain’s preferred successor Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane) rejects the offer and so Parliament turns to Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), a divisive figure with a poor war record but the only man who understood the threat Hitler posed from the start. Thus King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), despite his personal dislike of the man, invites Churchill to form a war government. Churchill gets to work immediately, forming a war cabinet that includes Halifax, Chamberlain, and the “sheep in sheep’s clothing” Anthony Eden (Samuel West) and making clear that he has no intention whatsoever of negotiating peace terms with Germany. As the situation in France worsens and the party’s confidence in their leader decreases, Churchill feels more and more the weight of history on his shoulders.

In the role that will almost certainly win him an Oscar, Oldman delivers a fine performance indeed. Working through make-up and prosthetics, Oldman is as forceful and expressive as he’s ever been and is able to build a compelling portrait of the man. Before becoming Prime Minister, Churchill was a contentious figure, disliked by many for his controversial opinions, uncouth humour, and bad judgement, particularly with Gallipoli and India. The man may very well never have won the support to become Prime Minister had he not happened to be absolutely right about Hitler at this crucial time. Oldman thus embraces the ‘100 Greatest Britons’ poll winner’s boorish, impetuous side and brings much humanity to an unrefined figure who effectively lucked into the highest office in government and suddenly held the fate of the British Empire in his hands. The weight of the responsibility is never lost on him, but there is a question of whether Churchill’s decision to fight on to the bitter end is truly in the people’s best interest or if he’s allowing his passions and prejudices to drive Britain into ruin. Oldman displays all the strength, wit, and vulnerabilities of Churchill’s character and is more than worthy of the acclaim he has received.

Sadly the rest of the film isn’t as strong. Wright is able to convey a definite sense of urgency and immediacy to the few days where Britain’s fate hung delicately in the balance, but not in a way that felt truthful to me. The film is historical fiction, so naturally liberties have to be taken in the interest of creating an engaging, efficient drama. Accuracy is therefore all but irrelevant, what really matters is truthfulness; the events don’t have to perfectly match what actually happened as long as we believe in what it shows us instead. Darkest Hour didn’t work for me in this regard because the story often felt contrived to me. Through stilted, on-the-nose dialogue and certain scenes that felt theatrical in their arrangement and performance, I never honestly believed that I was there the way I did with Dunkirk. Even allowing for the fact that Darkest Hour was not made with the intention of being as cinematically overwhelming as the Nolan film, the film just felt too much like a reproduction to me than it did a story. The one scene where this is most apparent is when Churchill takes a ride on the London Underground and talks to some of the people, a preposterous scene that feels as cheap as it feels fake.

It is a competently told story at any rate. There are enough decent performances to support Oldman in his tour-de-force from Kristin Scott Thomas as Churchill’s supportive wife Clemmie, to Dillane as the calculating Halifax whose pragmatism serves as a foil to Churchill’s idealism, to Lily James as the determined, doe-eyed secretary. The film also does a pretty good job of highlighting what exactly it was that made Churchill not just a great leader but also the right leader for Britain at this time. His greatest asset as Prime Minister was not his intelligence, strength, or authority, it was his charisma and the film places a strong emphasis on the critical role his rhetoric played in building the morale of the British people. While I don’t think the way the film did this always worked (e.g. in that Underground scene), it was fine when it did. There is also a convincing sense of sincerity to the character, in large part due to Oldman’s acting. The seriousness with which he treats his task and the passion with which he delivers his speeches convinces you that this is a man who will absolutely give his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to see Britain through this dark hour. Dunkirk this film is not, but Darkest Hour is fine for what it is.

★★★

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The Hitman’s Bodyguard

Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Élodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Richard E. Grant

Director: Patrick Hughes

Writer: Tom O’Connor


This is the story of two men who are both pretty bad guys. One’s an infamous hitman who kills bad guys. The other’s a professional bodyguard who protects bad guys. Circumstances force the two to put aside their differences and work together to take down a really bad guy. Wacky hijinks ensue. The odd couple trope is older than time and has been used again and again in dozens of movies from In the Heat of the Night to Rush Hour to Toy Story. This time the movie brings together a movie star so coarse and badass that he has practically turned ‘motherfucker’ into a catchphrase and another who has somehow managed to build a persona combining profanity and perversity with childlike lovability. Together they make a movie that is neither more nor less than exactly what you would expect it to be: an over-the-top buddy movie with a lot of shooting, chasing and cussing to boot.

The hitman is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the world’s most notorious assassin, now incarcerated. He becomes the last hope for a prosecution’s case against the heinous Belorussian dictator Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) and so Darius agrees to testify against him in exchange for the release of his equally coarse and vicious wife Sonia (Salma Hayek), also serving time for one of her husband’s crimes. Dukhovich’s reach however is very far and Amelia Roussel (Élodie Yung), the agent charged with escorting Darius, soon learns that the police and secret service are all compromised. Thus she trusts Darius’ charge to her ex-boyfriend Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds), the formerly triple A rated now-disgraced executive protection agent. Together Michael and Darius must reach The Hague before Dukhovich’s trial is dismissed at 5 pm the next day while combatting the henchmen hot on their trail and each other.

This is a very dumb film and, in many ways, it is quite a generic film as well. It is just Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds being Samuel L. Jackson and Ryan Reynolds and the story goes exactly how you think it would. Darius is a reckless psychopath who always charges ahead without thinking things through, which brings him at odds with Michael who is altogether more cautious and exact with his methods and wants to reach The Hague without any incident whatsoever, living by his oft-repeated motto “boring is always best”. They butt heads and hit a couple of detours along the way but we all know that eventually they’re going to start seeing eye-to-eye once they realise that they make a pretty good team. What makes it works is that Jackson and Reynolds are both so good at playing their respective personas and their chemistry is electrifying. No matter how predictable (gee, I wonder who killed the man Michael was protecting in the opening scene?) or formulaic this shoot-em-up of a story got, it is still very watchable thanks to this epic clash in personalities.

The Hitman’s Bodyguard does suffer from a case of bad timing with its depictions of carnage in London and Europe, both victims of devastating terrorist attacks in recent months, and that does steal away from the fun. It is hard to get caught up in this kind of escapist fantasy with its mindless violence, blazing guns, fiery explosions and a large, anonymous body count when it all feels just a little too close to home. But that’s not the movie’s fault; it’s just bad luck. Like Bastille Day, which was filmed in France before the attacks on the Bataclan Theatre and the Charlie Hebdo office, there is just no way they could’ve seen them coming. Maybe there’s a case to be made that, in light of these recent attacks, studios should strive to make movies that not only refuse to glorify violence and revel in sadism but also challenge those that do, but this is a movie that is not nearly smart or serious enough to take that kind of stance. The deepest this movie ever gets is when it asks whether the guy who protects baddies is worse than the guy who kills them, and anyone who thinks this movie is actually serious about engaging that question in a thoughtful debate is living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

This is quite simply a silly, run-of-the-mill action-comedy with two great leads and it will probably hold up better when it comes out on something like Netflix with a little more distance from recent events. Apart from Jackson and Reynolds, who each give 100%, the other standout is Salma Hayek who plays Darius’ perfect woman: strong, beautiful, and positively psychopathic. The scene where Darius recounts the night they met, an evening of bloody murder accompanied by Lionel Richie, is one of the movie’s highlights. It isn’t a clever film, it isn’t an original film, and it isn’t a movie that I feel any particular desire to revisit in the future, but I laughed, I enjoyed watching Jackson and Reynolds go toe-to-toe, and I walked out feeling like I had a pretty good time.

★★★